Photography: Photo synthesis

The V&A was one of the earliest champions of photography as art and this week opens a permanent gallery devoted to its astounding, diverse collection. By Robin Muir

Many have attempted to articulate the thrill of collecting, but, in the field of photography, few so eloquently (or so idiosyncratically) as the late Sam Wagstaff, whose collection of prints forms the basis of the Getty Museum's department of photographs.

His foreword to a compilation of the collection

reads simply: "This book is about pleasure and the pleasure of looking and the pleasure of seeing, like watching people dancing through an open window. They seem a little mad at first, until you realise they hear the song that you are watching."

The need to accumulate was for Wagstaff something of a primordial urge: "It is more fun," he once said, "to be where you're floating outside your knowledge, where only your stomach tells you, or your groin, that a photograph is good."

Sentiments shared, no doubt, nearly a century-and-a-half earlier, by Sir Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum, although he might, perhaps, have expressed them in language more carefully chosen for the Age of Reform. As enthusiastic a champion of the art of photography as Wagstaff, he started buying photographs for his museum in 1856, the year it opened. The South Kensington Museum is now the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the collection that the prescient Cole initiated is the foundation of our national collection. It was not only the world's earliest, but, with some 300,000 images, is now the world's largest collection, internationally renowned. "These prints are dazzling," sighed Vicki Goldberg in the New York Times last month, reviewing a selection on show in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

This week, the museum opens the Canon Photography Gallery, a permanent gallery devoted to the collection. The display will change regularly, and the inaugural exhibition, based upon the book of the collection by the current curator of photographs, Mark Haworth-Booth, is an impressive celebration of the V&A's rich holding and Haworth-Booth's own connoisseurship. A print by the American William Eggleston of a kitchen sink, saturated in colour, sits beautifully with a bleak vignette from the domestic life of Richard Billingham and not too far from the dog-eared headshot by John Deakin of his friend Francis Bacon. A luminous fashion plate by George Hoyningen-Huene, of Lee Miller in Yraide overalls, hangs near the model's own surrealistic tableau, The Exploding Hand, 1930, and just along from a solarised portrait of their friend, the artist Meret Oppenheim, by her lover, Man Ray.

The early years are well represented, too - a surprisingly colourful selection considering the monochromatic roots of the medium. Most notable among these are a lustrous blue-tinted cyanotype by Anna Atkins, the title page to her British Ferns, and a delicate and warm-toned russet-coloured calotype by David Octavius Hill. A tiny daguerrotype, a street scene from 1839 by de Ste Croix, is the earliest photograph in the collection - the shadowy figures in its foreground probably the first Britons to have been recorded on film. "No other museum in the world," says Haworth-Booth, "whether in Berlin, Paris or New York, did so much with photography or collected so well."

Museum collections are mostly the results of someone else's diligent labours, and although it started buying early on, the V&A has relied for its embarras de richesses on a succession of gifts and bequests, happy accidents and detective work, the determined pursuit of choice items by museum staff, and the idiosyncratic eye of generations of far-sighted curators. And, of course, other methods have been employed in pursuit of excellence. The Reverend Chauncy Hare Townshend, who flourished in the mid 19th century, was an eccentric collector of gemstones and fossils, a numismatist and enthusiast for Old Master paintings as well as for photographs. He was also a childless millionaire, and was doggedly courted by the museum. One curator mused that, "Mr Townshend having no children, it occurred to me that it would be a noble thing for him to leave his collection by will to the South Kensington Museum." And so he did, the museum acquiring his outstanding collection of Victorian photographs in pristine condition.

The museum bought outstandingly well, too. Between 1903 and 1905 it bought 572 photographs (at 1 Franc 25 centimes each) from Eugene Atget. His documentary photographs of ancien Paris, its shop windows, gardens, and ironwork, are a celebration of that city's streets at their most unpopulated and noiseless, and a paean to its municipal achievements, great and small. Atget's work was hugely influential on successive generations of photographers (not just documentarists), including Man Ray, Berenice Abbott, John Deakin and Edwin Smith.

Collections can be strengthened in many original ways, mostly involving luck or intuition or logical thinking. The great French collector Andre Jammes used to buy up the stocks of booksellers (they had historically sold photographs and prints, too) and travelled the world buying from the estates of other collectors as well as photographers. But there can be no arrangement more bizarre than that entered into by the art historian Roland Penrose with the mother of the photojournalist Robert Capa, now best remembered for his photographs of the Spanish Civil War. Intending to mount a show in support of the Left during the civil war, Penrose went to Capa's flat in Paris. "Capa was away, but his mother, who Roland described as elderly, rather deaf and speaking very little English, got the photos out for him to see," says Haworth-Booth, who was told the story by Antony Penrose (Roland's son by Lee Miller). "After careful deliberation, he made his choice and asked how much they cost. Capa's mother didn't have a clue what to charge, and things got very complicated until she was struck with an idea. She scuttled off into a back room, returned carrying the scales which peasant people used in country markets, and demanded to know how much a kilo Roland was offering." Years later, whenever the two met, Capa would greet Roland with, "Here's the man who tried to buy my photos by the kilo - how much are you offering today?"

This transaction was not on behalf of the V&A, but it does usefully remind us just how recent is the notion that contemporary photographic prints have a market value. As the photographic market started to take off in the Seventies (when it was still possible for Jammes and his colleagues to make spectacular finds in the Paris fleamarkets), Roy Strong, then director of the V&A, sensed, as Haworth-Booth puts it, that "this was the last time when significant acquisitions of the rarest material could be made". A large part of the inaugural exhibition, it appears, was made during Strong's tenure. He was passionate about the art of photography. Before a sale at Christie's in 1978, he authorised a bid of pounds 2,000 for a rare Roger Fenton Nubian Model Reclining, which is from his "grey albums", and is, in Haworth-Booth's opinion, one of "the most impressive of all British photographs". On the day, Strong doubled the bid - and lost it to an American at pounds 5,400. But in 1979, his determination paid off, and he acquired from another American, the collector Paul Walter, another print of the same model from the same albums. The print by Anna Atkins, from her British Ferns series, came from an album of cyanotypes, which sold at Christie's for a sum which, in those times of spiralling prices, the V&A could never have afforded. However, the new owner allowed the museum to take its pick.

Photographers, too, have been extraordinarily generous to Haworth-Booth: Don McCullin gave him the entire set of prints for his 1981 retrospective; Bailey, his Black and White Memories show, mostly work from the 1960s; Roger Mayne gave the dummy book for his pioneering documentary series, Portrait of Southam Street 1956-61; and the museum received half a show's worth of prints from the grand old man of American photography, Ansel Adams, who, for his exhibition there in 1976, insisted that the walls be "painted a desert terracotta colour of exactly 18-and-a-half per cent reflective". Haworth-Booth's acquisitions have been as judicious as any of his predecessors'. He bought John Deakin's masterpiece - the distressed print of Bacon - from the writer Elizabeth Smart for pounds 400, a high price then for an unsung photographer (despite a small show in the gallery's Henry Cole Wing). It is now one of the most widely reproduced photographs in the collection.

For Haworth-Booth, successor to generations of Superintendents of Photography (as the Victorians termed chief custodians of the new art), "it is all about remembering". When he sees something he likes, he will not buy there and then (the rules don't let him anyway), nor necessarily shortly after, but more usually on reflection, often months or years afterwards, when the resonance of what he has seen becomes clearer, the potency reinforced by time and memory. He first came across Gabriel Orozco's Breath on Piano in 1993, and it haunted him. In 1996, he saw it again at the ICA, London - "it was as good as it ever was" - and, in 1997, he bought it. He saw Chris Killip's photograph of two sea-coal gatherers, Rocker and Rosie Going Home, Lynemouth (1983), shortly after it was taken, at the beginning of the miners' strike. It is still a haunting image of a grim survival on the downside of the Thatcher years, but suffused with the photographer's admiration for their determination too. "It contains," says Haworth-Booth, "a lot of the feeling of the times, such an odd time ... great photography not only transcends its time, but takes you back to it".

One of Haworth-Booth's recent acquisitions is by David Hockney, originally a get-well-soon card for his friend, the late Jonathan Silver. "Part of the pleasure of Hockney's picture," he says, "lies in the variation on the artful games he has often played with different media representations, doubles and so on. Here, he contrasts the photographed vase of sunflowers with the same vase in gouache on art paper." Its title, Photography is Dead, Long Live Painting, September 26th 1995, has perhaps a particular resonance for Haworth-Booth, whose book is called Photography: An Independent Art. Photography has always existed uncomfortably alongside the fine art world. Painters at the outset wrung their hands as livelihoods threatened to slip effortlessly away. JMW Turner resigned himself to retirement with a dignified response, "This is the end of Art. I am glad I have had my day," while Paul Delaroche famously wailed, "From today painting is dead!"

That photography is indeed an independent art, and that there is so little mileage left in the debate, is, in part, due to the pioneering example of those unsung heroes from generations at the V&A, whose unequivocal spirit the self-effacing Haworth-Booth reflects 150 years on. He is pleased with his new gallery. Its physical position in the layout of the museum puts it at the forefront of its attractions. If the V&A were a Monopoly board, the Canon Gallery of Photography, he muses, would be Park Lane. Sir Henry Cole, too, had a thing about London place names. In 1858, after the museum's first photographic exhibition, one critic announced, "We must say that a more out-of-the-way place could not well have been chosen." Cole had that part of west London changed from "Brompton" to "South Kensington", which, two miles from Piccadilly, he felt had more social prestige

'Photography: An Independent Art' opens in the Canon Photography Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 21 May. Enquiries: 0171-938 8500.

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